Bryce Canyon, Utah
Photo: Luca Galuzzi
In the photograph above the canyon looks like a huge natural organ. The red-orange rock formations are evoked in the music itself - Messiaen associated the colour red with E major. In a 1979 interview he said “Bryce Canyon was of special interest to me. That’s because it had all those wonderful colours, and I wanted to put them into music. So, the piece I composed about Bryce Canyon is red and orange, the colour of the cliffs.” Quite a lot has been written about Messiaen's synaesthesia - if you're interested, check out the three dimensional maps of Messiaen's colour space in a paper by Paul E. Dworak.
Des canyons aux étoiles... was composed after Messiaen's trip to Utah in 1972 and premiered in 1974. According to Alex Ross the New York arts patron Alice Tully had 'asked Messiaen to write a work in commemoration of the upcoming American bicentennial. It was an unlikely assignment, since Messiaen had little love for American culture and a special antipathy for New York. His reluctance gave way when Tully, well briefed on the composer's vulnerabilities, served him a sumptuous repast capped with "an immense cake crowned with pistachio frogs spewing crème Chantilly."' Here is an example of the celestial music facilitated by this delicious-sounding cake, the third movement of Des canyons aux étoiles..., 'Ce qui est écrit sur les étoiles' - 'What is written in the stars'.